Archive for the 'Transportation' Category

Lunar Shuttle Experience

Perhaps some of you might not be aware of my experience commuting to the moon…

Flight 744 to Stevinus Crater is now boarding at Gate 52“. Damn! The Starbucks line is snaking its way all the way down the departure hall corridor of alternating red, grey, and blue colored carpet tiles, meaning there’s not a chance in hell of grabbing a decent coffee before departure. “If they can put a man on the moon, why can’t they…” went the old lament. And yet now we have whole colonies on the moon, more people settling in there with every passing week, and the airlines still seem utterly incapable of serving anything north of a watery mixture resembling that churned out by hotel in-room Folger’s packets.

Sheesh. What an ingrate I must sound like! Complaining about the beverage choices on a lunar shuttle flight. It wasn’t always this way. When regular air travel to the moon began, and I was hired on to help install the wireless internet in the southeast quadrant of the sunny side, I jumped at the chance, never giving even a moment’s thought to the in-flight service. As it must have been for those on the early transcontinental airplane flights, the thrill of being a pioneer, able to do what most could only dream of, was reward enough. Who cared whether they served Duck à l’Orange or stale peanuts.

Oh, but the quacking bird was on the menu. The exorbitant ticket prices had to be justified somehow, even if most were purchased by passengers’ employers or unpleasantly rich tourists, and so feasts were impeccably assembled and served. Once we were out of Earth’s atmosphere, that is. As no doubt you’ve heard, flying to the Land of Green Cheese isn’t quite like a traditional airplane flight. Much energy must be expended to escape the clutches of gravity, and so the first half hour or so can be quite unpleasant, as we are all squeezed into our narrow polyester-blend seats, two-by-two, lying back at a near-80º angle, strapped in with multiple belts – covering our laps, shoulders, feet, and head – as the vehicle accelerates to 40,000 km per hour, all while g-forces pull our cheeks and our lower lips down towards our toes.

And then, bam! We’re free. Or almost. “The captain has requested that while seated, you keep both your lap and shoulder straps fastened, in case we need to evade any unforeseen meteorites.” At which point the young, good-looking attendants (the program was too new to be a slave to union seniority rules) would pass out these most tasty mooncakes; not the hockey puck-shaped sweets of fruitcake consistency enjoyed (in the most non-literal sense) by Chinese around the world at the time of the autumnal equinox each year, but instead something half way between birthday cake and muffin, a morsel of semi-sweet goodness formed to appear like a moon rock. Sure, it was kitschy, but I always looked forward to their arrival, and the knowledge that these were just a few minutes from my taste buds made getting through the difficult phase of the flight that much more palatable.

They were always tastier on the way up than on the way back down, though, since just as Chinese fortune cookies aren’t produced in China, the “mooncakes” were baked not on the moon but in the facilities of LSG Sky Chefs at Los Angeles International Airport and stored on board in warming drawers that, by the time of the return flight, had dried them out to the point where they were only barely more edible than a three-day-old pumpernickel bagel. Of course, with the lesser gravity of the moon, the journey home was not nearly as trying and so the mooncake as pacifier was less of a necessity. Following that favored snack of shuttlers was the exquisite meal service; exquisite in presentation if not necessarily in taste, complete with cloth napkins, real silverware, and more courses than you could count. A food coma induced sleep would undoubtedly follow, and the soft parachute-assisted landing was barely perceptible, followed by an agonizingly long docking and pressurization routine.

These days, the mooncakes are gone, as is the Frenchified poultry and fresh-faced flight crew, as lunar shuttle flights, while still economically out of reach of the common man, have become routine enough to attain the status of, if not a Greyhound bus with solid-fuel rocket boosters, perhaps a double-decker Megabus with free Wi-Fi and onboard lavatory (with solid-fuel rocket boosters). It’s easy to think these trips are nothing special, so I must constantly remind myself how fortunate I am to be able to take such a journey, not once, as many would give their left kidney for, but every few months for many years, even if after I arrive I’m performing the fairly routine work of tracking down intermittent network connectivity problems with a wireless spectrum analyzer and time-domain reflectometer.

SoCal Smart Card Implementations Not Smart

In May of 2002, I arrived at the airport in Hong Kong and bought an Octopus Card so that I could get around the city. This was the first time I’d used a transit smart card, and it worked perfectly. You just tap it once when boarding the train or bus, and tap it again when you get off, and the proper fare is deducted. It is also accepted at many convenience stores.

Since then, I’ve used similar systems in Japan (Suica), Korea (T-Money), Singapore (EZ Link), China (公交卡), Taiwan (EasyCard), and England (Oyster). I’ve never had a problem with any of these systems.

I believe the implementation of the Oyster Card is especially well thought-out. You don’t have to decide in advance if it makes more sense to buy a daily pass or to pay for each journey, as it will never charge you more than the price of the day pass. This is key. You want to make it as easy as possible for people to use public transit, and not forcing them to make decisions is a good way to accomplish this. Just use the card, knowing you’re always paying the lowest fare. Along these same lines, the Oyster Card gives you a much lower fare than when paying cash, further pushing adoption of this technology.

In 2001, the San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG) signed a contract with Cubic Transportation Systems, the same company that provided the smart card systems in England and Singapore, among many other places. Likewise, in 2002, the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transit Agency contracted with Cubic for a similar system.

Yet here we are 10 years (and countless millions of dollars) later, and neither system has been fully and properly implemented. To wit, this quote from the pages of the Culver City bus system:

How do I transfer from one Culver CityBus to another Culver CityBus using a TAP card?

Simply tap your TAP card on the farebox. The base fare will be deducted from your card. Ask the Culver CityBus Operator for a Local Transfer and tap your card again to pay for the transfer. The Operator will then give you a paper transfer.

Excuse me??? This is a smart card! You should just be able to tap the card and have your fare deducted. If you use it again within the allowed transfer period (and it’s not a return trip), it should just deduct the price of a transfer. When the procedure to use a smart card is way more complicated than paying cash, something is very wrong.

The usefulness of L.A.’s TAP Card runs into more problems in those cases where you might exceed the price of a day pass. Even though they use the same technology as the Oyster Card, there is no daily cap. If you make many trips and just keep tapping your card, it will continue to deduct the full fare each time. So you must decide at the beginning of the day whether to buy the day pass or not. And if your trip starts at a subway or light rail station, no longer can you just tap on the fare gate or platform pedestal. Instead, you must wait in line at the ticket machine and purchase a day pass which is then added to your card, again completely negating the convenience of the smart card!

Things are no better in my hometown of San Diego and their Compass Card. Instead of a daily cap, they have set their systems to sell you a day pass by default. If you are at a trolley station and just want to make a one-way trip, too bad. You can’t use the pedestals and must line up at a ticket machine, unless you don’t mind paying $5 for a one-way trip. On the buses, you are supposed to be able to tell the driver before you tap your card that you want a one-way fare instead of a day pass, but in practice, when I do this, it still deducts the $5 cost of a day pass.

Commuting to and from work for me normally requires just two $2.25 one-way trips, and I don’t relish making a daily 50-cent donation to the local transit agency. But sometimes I decide to go somewhere after work. Again, a London style daily cap would work great and encourage me to use transit more often, as there would be no fear that I’ll end up spending way more than it costs me to drive.

There are several other problems with the San Diego system.

One is the slowness of the card readers. Bus boarding is severely delayed by the fact that it takes almost two seconds for the response to each card tap. Why oh why? L.A. uses the same fare boxes and the response is immediate, as it is too on MTS’s contract buses.

[2013-08-20 Edit: Interesting that an article I read concerning RTD Denver's new smart card system said that they decided not to buy the integrated GFI fare boxes that MTS uses because "integrated machines would take too long to process a bus-boarding transaction" Hmmm. Ref: http://www.denverpost.com/ci_17091718]

Also, despite the day pass supposedly being good until the end of service, it’s actually coded to end at 23:59. If you board a bus after midnight (I’m a late-night person, so this isn’t so unusual for me) and tap your card, it charges you for a day pass for the following day. (The same thing happens with their paper day passes. If you insert it after midnight, it eats the pass and doesn’t register as valid.)

Keep it simple. I should just be able to tap my card every time I get on a bus or train and know that I’m always getting the best fare. The easier it is, the more likely I am to use it. With the card set to auto-charge, it even feels like it’s free!

It can’t be that hard to get all this working. It’s just a matter of software. I can’t believe it’s been a whole decade, and while cities around the world have successful smart card implementations, here in Southern California they are still struggling through political and technical challenges to get everything right.

Dangerous Intersection

Two competing roads both get the green light at this T intersection

Two competing roads both get the green light at this T intersection

In the U.S., traffic control boxes often have failsafe hardware that will prevent two competing roads from both getting a green light, just in case of some hardware or software failure.

Now which traffic engineer here in Chengdu, China thought it would be a good idea to purposely do this?

Cars No Longer Cool in Japan

According to the AP, young people in Japan have found better things than cars to spend their money on..

younger Japanese … prefer to spend their money on mobile phone bills and other gadgets than on cars.
[...]
some people in their 20s said they didn’t want a car, even if they got it for free. Others said they didn’t find the idea of going for a drive with a date or zipping around in a sports car as particularly appealing.

I eagerly await the day when this attitude makes it to North America. I may, however, get very old waiting for this day to come.

As the article notes, Japan has an excellent public transportation system and very high parking prices (often about $1 per 15 minutes with no maximum), making car ownership in urban areas not just superfluous, but also a huge burden.

Typically, Japanese use their car maybe once a week to go for a drive (on streets and highways choked with others doing the same thing), so why not save that money and spend it on something you use every day, like your 携帯 (mobile phone) or home appliances.